Leap of faith

April 06,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Huge storms passed through our part of town on Monday night. I lay in bed and listened to the wind, and then the torrents of rain. I worried about the trees around the house. Then I drifted off to sleep. A couple of hours later I awoke to the sound of the weather emergency bulletin coming from L.'s radio in his room. I sprang out of bed. Was there a tornado watch? I found L. in his room, sitting bolt upright in his bed. He had been listening to the same emergency broadcast and had been up for a awhile, tossing and turning; a sore throat and anxiety about the weather had kept him awake while the rest of us slept.

After I tended to him (Motrin, a drink of water, a brief reassuring discussion on the improbability of a tornado strike) I went back to bed. I couldn't sleep, though. For some reason my mind latched onto the fact that next year, we'd have to get up at 5:30 am in order to get L. out the door and into school in advance of the first tardy bell (7:30 am). A WHOLE hour earlier than this year. It seemed an insurmountable problem to me, there, in the dark. We can't do it, I thought. There is no way we can do it. I was near tears. I fretted, I worried, and then I finally fell asleep. When I woke up it seemed ridiculous that out of all the anxieties we have about next year, my mind had presented that one as the most difficult of all.

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Last week on Parenthood, Kristina and Adam had to make a decision that hinged on a pure leap of faith. Should they take their son Max out of his private school program (which supports kids on the spectrum) and mainstream him, as his teachers recommend? Kristina is wary, and frightened. She sees a change like that as rocking the boat, and she’s afraid to send him into a situation where he might not be safe—emotionally and physically. Adam is excited to think that Max has progressed so far, and that he needs the academic challenges of a mainstream setting. But Kristina and Adam argue; they circle around the issue, each one refusing to budge. Finally, a distraught Kristina is reassured by Max's former behavioral aide (who is very young, and has zero experience with the dizzying, stomach-churning reality of what a real leap of faith feels like as a parent) that he will do just fine with the school switch. 

Whew. Problem solved.

My heart went out to each parent--I understood Adam's enthusiasm for the next big step, and I empathized with Kristina's fears and hesitation. It's such a hard line to walk--that one between understanding your child's limits and challenges, yet being so very careful not to let them define him; it's so hard to know how to encourage your child's strengths, while not setting unrealistic expectations that might prove overwhelming, or catastrophic. That sums up, for me, the difficulty we have been having with the middle school decision. We feel so lucky that L."won" a seat at a magnet school we never thought we had a chance of getting into, yet we're scared, too. The program and structure of this school is very different from what L. has been used to. But this could be very good, because so far our only experience has been with his elementary school, and that's been far from perfect. Because this middle school is a "gifted and talented" magnet program the expectations are higher; there are more electives for L. to choose from, but this translates into less class time during the day that's being spent on the core classes--the ones L. struggles with. Still, the flip-side is that there's less class time spent on the core classes L. struggles with. There are opportunities built into the school day for L. to get help on his homework and class projects, which is all good. The school focuses on differentiated learning, instead of lumping kids into groups in a desperate attempt to level the playing field. Hopefully this will help L., whose strengths come in different shapes and sizes, and who needs teachers who recognize his unique talents. The fact that L. can pick from three electives, instead of just two, is very important for us, and something he likes as well--this could be critical for a child who has trouble sustaining interest and motivation in schoolwork.

It's all so promising on paper. But it's also such a leap of faith, really. There is a certain amount of safety and security that goes along with choosing our base school, and many unknowns with the magnet school. It's all so scary--but so exciting, too. 

Yesterday the deadline for declining the magnet option came and went. We talked long and hard. We promised to not look back. We took the leap.